Okay, I know this blog post might be largely inapplicable, but hear me out: prior to teaching in Korea, I tried researching about how easy it would be to maintain my plant-based dietary choices. Unfortunately, I found few sources from which to gather information. Although this blog may only be useful for vegetarians and vegans, it’s important that I offer personal insight on this topic solely because it’s something that would have been useful for me to know prior to my departure. And to be honest, this likely won’t be my last post on the matter! So, if you’re interested in a (non-militant) account of my experiences eating a plant-based diet while living in a country that heavily consumes animal products, please keep reading!
Although experiencing cultures often involves tasting and enjoying the food of said culture, it’s understandable if maintaining a plant-based diet is more important to you, as it is for me. Whether you choose to not consume most, or any animal products, for environmental, health, or ethical reasons, the decision is yours to make with as little or as much leniency as you wish.
The abstract: If you are okay with cooking, you’ll have no trouble. If you’re more inclined to go out for most meals: you’ll struggle, especially if vegan. It’s difficult – I’m not going to sugar coat it. Although within Busan, where I live, there are a vegan and/or vegetarian restaurants! I’ve eaten at four different ones since my arrival, and my meals were truly delicious and satisfying. They offer soy-meat burgers, falafel, pizza, pasta, hearty salads, burritos, smoothies, non-dairy lattes and more. Something that has been especially helpful for me is the ‘Happy Cow’ app, which maps out vegan and vegetarian-friendly establishments near you. Here are a few restaurants I've enjoyed: Jack and the Beanstalk, Ecotopia, Yammy Green, and Moomoo Burger.
I personally enjoy buying my own ingredients and cooking. If you enjoy eating a primarily whole plant-food diet, there’s an abundance of options and all rather inexpensive. There are plenty of vegetables to choose from: bok choy, spinach, leeks, garlic, broccoli, cucumbers, lettuce, cabbage, brussel sprouts, chard, etc. There are enough veggies, although some are a bit pricier, such as asparagus. Fruit is also widely available but they’ve been more expensive than I’m personally used to (and I’ve lived in South Carolina and Virginia).
Here are some things I’ve noticed: watermelons are luxury-fruits, sold at around $25.00 each. Bananas are also a bit pricier than the $0.59/lb that I’m used to. Persimmons and clementines are rather inexpensive options (at least during the winter). Avocados are about $2.50 each and a 9-pack of lemons is around $7.00. Depending on where you’re coming from, some fruits will be significantly more expensive than you’re accustomed to. Tofu, even the organic option, is definitely affordable.
However, I’ve found it still very easy to save money each week because buying whole grains and legumes like rice, barley, lentils and soybeans are reasonably priced. If I were to budget optimally, I could easily only spend $200-250 a month on food without depriving my body of nutrients. Soy milk is very popular and available, even at most small corner or convenience stores. Almond milk (Almond Breeze brand), as well as mixed-nut milks, are also available though I’ve come across them less often. Canned beans and vegetables tend to be imported and therefore cost more than most will be used to: think $2.50/can of black beans. That’s why I prefer to buy dry beans – they’re also without preservatives.
Having said all the above, it’s been truly easy for me to eat very nutritionally dense plant foods here, as long as I fend for myself. Like I said above, eating out at a regular restaurant is a different story. It all depends on how committed you are to your dietary choices. Most entrees, unless you find a specifically vegetarian or vegan restaurant, will contain an animal product. Even dishes advertised as vegetarian often contain sauces that are made using fish oil or fish/shrimp sauce. From my experience, requesting ‘no meat’ or other animal products often leads to a lot of confusion. What’s helped is predicating your decision with “Eat like Buddhist.” A go-to option is to get the bibimbap sans the meat and egg, and in some instances, the sauce. Unfortunately, Google translate is not always a reliable option. What helps the MOST if you’re not yet fluent in Korean, is having your kind vegan/vegetarian friendly Korean friends and coworkers help you out. Everyone has been incredibly accommodating and eating vegan is for me still very practicable.
But if you do find yourself in challenging or frustrating situations, my sincerest advice is to remember that you are within a different culture. You are the one who has changed your lifestyle, and one can’t expect the world to simultaneously transform to meet personal needs or belief systems.
Linda Gaida was raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina and graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2016 with a degree in Romance Languages. While passionate about environmental studies and conservation, her interests now lean towards education! Her curiosities and studies have taken her to Romania, Portugal, Peru, India, and now South Korea, where she works as an English teacher for ChungDahm Learning in Busan. Deciding to teach abroad was an easy decision to make for Linda: while she gets to experience a culture foreign to her own, she is able to benefit the global society by teaching children English and helping them pursue their own ambitions. Linda is also interested in yoga, climbing, hiking, backpacking (anything involving movement), cooking and writing poetry.